Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Spectre of Mass Evictions Looms Over Golborne

The horrible truth is dawning - even before the final decision is made - for residents of 'Phase 1a' at Wornington Green. They have been promised the earth, the moon and the stars. A few - because what they needed just happened to be available - have won the ultimate prize, a newly decorated home nearby, with wads of cash to 'incentivise' their move. They have been ordered not to reveal to their neighbours - and most particularly not to their local Councillors - the details of the offer they have been made, and have been told this is because it is 'special', just for them, no one else will get it. Luckily, they have told us.

A vast majority of the residents, however, will NOT win the ultimate prize. The 'evil twins' pretending to be housing officers who come to the door are well rehearsed in their bullying techniques, insinuating to tenants that as 'the Mayor has signed the planning application' (which is a lie, he signed a letter saying he wouldn't interfere, which is NOT the final stage) if they don't take what is being offered, life will be made very difficult for them. What is being offered includes: a move to Stonebridge; a move to Shepherd's Bush; a move to Harrow Road. You may have noticed that NONE of these are within borough borders, which is what they were promised. Some have indeed been offered decants nearby, but these can be grotty and undecorated basement flats in the worst buildings of the worst areas. Families with grown-up children (anyone over 18) are being told they will have to be split up into two: this is not what they were told and not what they are entitled to. Some residents don't know their rights and are ripe for exploitation; some are tired of the endless lies, others are up for the fight and are simply refusing to move at all.

While we wait for the final decision, the truth is painful: the community is being torn apart, and evictions will happen.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Doorstep play and the molecular family

This is me outside my house in Paulton's Square, Chelsea. It was very mixed in those days, with a lot of refugees, struggling artists, and shiny-elbowed academics. I can well remember, as the youngest of six children, playing out in the street or in the garden square. The area was safe, with little traffic, everyone knew each other, front doors were left open and babies left for the afternoon snooze on the front step. We spent much of the day running in and out of each other's houses. It was common to see people nipping up to the letter-box on King's Road to catch the early post in their dressing gowns.

Apart from my own extended family (my Spanish granny lived with us periodically, making us a family of nine) we adopted various uncles and aunts in the neighbourhood, and it took me years to work out who were actually related and who were family friends. This idea of the molecular family, as I call it, rather than an introspective and self-interested nuclear family, is so embedded that I have spent much of my life forming molecular bonds, which is just as well as our blood family can often disappoint.

I live off Ladbroke Grove and while it is quite different to old Chelsea, we do have our molecular bonds. Just recently a neighbour had lent his car to a friend (who no one knew) but he couldn't start it. We could all hear the engine turning over outside. By the time I had gone out to offer my jump-leads to this total stranger, another neighbour had had the same thought, and a further one had come out to offer to line up their car for a jump-start as they knew mine was elsewhere. By the time we had got his car going, it seemed quite logical to ask for a lift down the road; we had adopted him.

These bonds take time to form, and are very fragile. This is why my heart sinks with the possible destruction of the delicate network of families and friends at Wornington Green; a proper neighbourhood where people who have very little are willing to share their time and help each other. Without the support of the molecular family, sadly, many will not survive.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

A bit depressed today, but the fight is on, 4.3.10

Since the Wornington Green planning application finally hit the doormat in early December I have worked 15 or 18 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, reading everything, responding to everything, working from every possible angle to get this disastrous planning application refused. I do have a family and they are very understanding, but everyone feels the timing was deliberately timed over Christmas to attract the least possible attention.

On Tuesday night 2 March (in fact it was Weds at 12.45am), on the positive vote of the chair of the committee who had expressed his grave negative concerns in public, the lives of 1,700 residents on Wornington Green, plus a further 3,000 plus of their near neighbours, was destroyed. I feel betrayed, and I know the residents have been betrayed.

As a journalist and specialist in planning and architecture for many years, I have pulled out every stop and pulled in every favour to have this weak and insensitive scheme nuked. So far I have not succeeded. We are currently on Plan B, and we do have a Plan C, D and E. The vote was very narrow and that is because the scheme is weak. We will work on this until we drop.

In the meantime there has been massive press coverage over the opening of a non-viably large fashion outlet further down Portobello Road, but the effect of this very ugly and insensitive development at the top of Portobello Road has been sidelined. Portobello Market could, in time, be bookended by disaster, at Westbourne Grove and at Golborne Road. The Council state they are committed to the market. Whatever are they thinking, allowing a development that is so much worse than what is already there?

Friday, 12 March 2010

Why Wornington Green could become Portobello Bottom

You may not have seen this image before, or you may be very familiar with it. Do you know why it fills me with dread? The crossroads at bottom middle is Portobello Road and Golborne Road, and going north you are heading to the 'exciting new urban quarter' that KHT and the Council imagine will solve all the ills of the world, improve health and education and give everyone a job.

For many of us, however, it looks like a slum of the future.

In this scheme the density of Wornington Green has been doubled, with no accompanying increase in park space, play space, community space, health or education facilities. Athlone Gardens is destroyed, beautiful mature trees all around the estate have been chopped down, with just a few left in the 'posh bit', the new Wheatstone Road, where the rather dreary town houses are hoped to be the salvation of the whole project. They aren't, and sadly the rest of the design is grim and forbidding, and simply bad planning and bad architecture.

The mews houses in the new Munro Mews have a bizarre non-family-friendly interior design with no redeeming features, and are single aspect, more or less 'back to backs'. Who will spend £1m on these miserable pokey houselets? The blocks behind them are oversized, monolithic and have full basement bedrooms and floor to ceiling windows, meaning that many residents will have their curtains shut 24/7. The courtyards are narrow and sunless. The mega-block down Wornington Green is just frightful.

And what of the Portobello Road frontage? Nearly two additional storeys, built up to the building line where it is now set back, with balconies peering into their neighbours, and no trees allowed, it will form an ugly canyon and Portobello will be bookended with horrors, All Saints at one end, 'Portobello Bottom' with empty shops at the other.

All this will kill the area, which is a settled friendly neighbourhood where people who have originated all over the world know each other, and many have been there for three or four generations and have established their identity with Portuguese, Spanish and Moroccan shops and restaurants, which are what give the character that visitors love.

If the scheme were strong and would genuinely solve overcrowding etc, I would support it. It isn't. We hope this project - which is architecturally weak and characterless, financially disastrous, socially catastrophic, and will actually make overcrowding worse - will not prevail. There are other and better ways to improve and regenerate, and there is a real will to make them reality.

More details and archive material:

Wornington Green

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Why I'm into what I'm into

Over the years my interests have lead me into housing. I started off working on design and architecture magazines many moons ago, but was always interested in function and how buildings and objects worked for actual human beings, rather than just looked good.

It has to be said this was a disadvantage working on certain magazines.

My curiosity led me towards study and research, and at one point I began a PhD on housing, first at the RCA where I had done my MA, then at the Bartlett, where I still teach occasionally. Fate intervened and I have been unable to complete to date, but the fundamentals of my research had been identified, and I am now working on them every day in practice as a local Councillor, rather than theoretically as an academic. For the present, this is totally absorbing, not least because I genuinely love and appreciate the people I work for, my constituents. Maybe one day it will help me write the thesis I envisioned; maybe it doesn't matter any more.

The potentially dangerous and challenging zone where architecture and politics meet have always fascinated me and was the subject of my MA thesis. I have early memories of some of the most extraordinary Modern buildings in London, such as the Royal College of Physicians which I frequented as a child and still have huge affection for, and various Modern houses that friends of my parents had built. These early experiences formed my normative values, and I have been involved in Docomomo, the Modern Movement conservation charity for many years, and have edited their magazine for a decade. So it was a particular delight to be elected local Councillor for the ward which embraces Trellick Tower and the Cheltenham Estate by Erno Goldfinger, Kensal House by Grey Wornum, and Swinbrooke Estate by Miller Tritton, as well as the quite gorgeous Pepler House by Clifford Wearden and Peter Deakins (who I have just met), which we are trying to save from demolition.

Life has ways of making all kinds of connections, and whatever my ambitions were years ago, I know that my various experiences and skills can be useful here and now, and what more could you want from life?